Wrathful Wiccan Wikipedians

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

When I was seven, my dog, Indiana
Jones, disappeared. My parents had just divorced, my dad was living in a small
commune in the University Park area of Denver, and my mother would come home
from work every night and cry herself to sleep. Indiana Jones was my anchor.

Soon after the disappearance, the
commune phone rang. Someone called out my name. It was for me. The voice, deep
and husky, said that they would return my dog on the “eclipse of the new moon,” a pagan reference that I did
not get at the time.

My mother had been a hippie, but the
fact that I was going to my father’s commune every other weekend often left her
on the verge of nervous breakdown. It’s different when you’re a mother living
with your child in a commune versus when your child is there without you,
especially when the father of your child was prone to wearing tin-foil on his
head and worrying about black helicopters.

That night, my dad had a lecture
somewhere in the mountains. We got lost and when we stopped at a 7-Eleven in
Golden to ask for directions, I spotted Indiana Jones tied to a fence. We broke
him free and went back to Denver and my father never went to his lecture. In
the end, one of my biggest childhood traumas had come not, as my mother feared,
from the commune itself, but from the realization that some people were so mad
at my dad that they would steal his young son’s dog as revenge.

*

Ten years later, long after the
commune had dissolved, my father wrote a book about Satanism called Painted
Black
(Harper Collins, 1990).
The book was entertaining, but also a bit of a mess. He had blown the whole
Satanism thing out of proportion, confused certain bands and elevated singers
like Ozzy Osbourne into real threats. However, at the time, there had been real
black magic murderers, like Adolfo Constanzo in Matamoros. As a high school
student reading the book I began to understand my father’s talent as a
University of Denver religious studies professor. He gave a relatable
perspective on these dark occults, written in accessible language.

The book sold well, but was poo-poo’d by his fellow academics. My father was also mocked, front page, by Denver’s longtime weekly, Westword. On the other hand, our teacher and editor on the Thomas Jefferson school newspaper got us out of class so we could watch my father debate Satanists on none other than the Geraldo Rivera Show.

Afterward, my dad never made much of that brief time in the spotlight, rarely talked about it except with a wave of the hand. He chose to spend most of his life teaching while writing or co-authoring dozens of academic books with staid titles like: The Engendering God, Male and Female Faces of God, or The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness. He slipped quietly away from the buzz of best-sellerdom and back to the sleepiness of academia. In fact, he used the publisher’s hefty advance to pay for my drinking at a very expensive private liberal arts college in Indiana. In a way, Painted Black, with all its failings, helped me become the writer I am today.

*

A few weeks ago, my father called me,
somewhat distraught. As usual, I thought he needed advice on how to stop the
refrigerator ice-machine from overflowing. Instead, he told me that someone had
created a Carl Raschke Wikipedia page.

“Well good,” I said. “It’s about
time.”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not good at
all.”

My healthy seventy-year old father was
huffing into the phone. He was on sabbatical and working on his next book from
his second-home in Oklahoma. When he writes my father is happy and talkative,
but now he was as distracted as he was curt.

I live in Europe so by the time I’m winding down, everyone in America is winding up. After I hung up, I kissed my wife goodnight, then sat at my computer. At first glance, the Wikipedia entry was six or seven long paragraphs long. Slowly, I realized that the entry entirely focused on my father’s book, Painted Black. It was under the very reasonable headline, Satanic ritual abuse moral panic, modern popular culture and new religious movements. It was like Westword’s attack, but on a far-larger scale.

The first sentence went like this:

Raschke has written and commented on topics such as Satanism, Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music and certain new religious movements. His work in this area as well as his role in the development of the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular the book Painted Black (1990), have been much criticized in academia.

It wasn’t terrible or outwardly offensive, but to have someone’s long and distinguished academic career, their thirty some books and hundreds of other publications, reduced to “Dungeons and Dragons” and “heavy metal music” on a website where the majority of internet users get their first understanding of a person or topic, was if not nasty, at least demeaning. Ultimately, the entire page was little more than a cut-and-paste Nexus-search compendium on anything negative ever written about Painted Black. He’d written nearly twenty books in his career and hundreds of essays and articles, all about theology, post-modernism, and densely academic topics, yet his Wikipedia page centered around this one pop book.

It was hard that my father was, after
so many years, a public target and it was even harder for me, his son, to learn
that Wikipedia, which I use almost daily, was little more than a platform for
well-written, but bitter blog posts.

Reviewing Painted Black in 1991, scholar Jonathon S. Epstein writes: “Painted Black adds additional fuel to the flames of hysteria surrounding satanism [sic] in America”

Scholar Arthur Versluis (2006) is highly critical of Raschke’s Painted Black, which he describes as an “effort to awaken an American inquisition” and refers to the book as “breathless sensationalism”.

In an article on Wicca and media for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and the News Media (2012), scholar Sarah M. Pike describes how a media report during the trial for the West Memphis Three “failed to consult experts on Wicca and Satanism” but rather referred to material by Raschke, who she describes as a “widely discredited ‘Satanism expert’”

I googled the “scholars” Arthur Versluis and Sarah Pike, who had two decades ago reviewed my dad’s book. They were both young theology academics at state universities, while Jonathon S. Epstein lists himself as a consultant for the Rock ’N’ Roll hall of fame. None of them were my father’s peers. It would be like a writer from Teen Vogue having the keys to Peter O’Toole’s IMDB page and focusing entirely on the movie Supergirl.

Suddenly, I was questioning all the
information I had ever gleaned from Wikipedia and incorporated into my writing.
How much of it had also been slanted and plain wrong? I had sat in on my
father’s classes, proofread his books, argued politics and philosophy over
whiskey, and while I was critical of the man like most sons are of their
fathers, especially ones who let their sons grow up in a commune with weirdos,
this Wikipedia entry felt unjust, if not infuriating.

I decided to take action. The editor of my dad’s article screen-name was Bloodofox. This Bloodofox’s other entries were limited exclusively to Norse and Germanic mythology. Heathenism. Paganism.

Bloodofox was a Wiccan.

When my father had lived in a commune,
there had been Wiccans living there. They taught me about Wiccan ideas, but
most of the explanation involved tarot cards and listening to the band Rush. Of course, I had only been seven years old. I
was older now. It was as if all the old wounds of my childhood were flooding
open, thirty-three years later, I could clearly hear that phone call promising
to return my beloved dog on, “the new moon.”

*

Joining Wikipedia is a bit like
attending Catholic mass and the Freemasons simultaneously. You don’t need to
give too much information beyond a screen name, but there are endless pages and
rules, many of them obscure, protocols linked on other pages, nothing binding,
but almost all leading to certain punishment if broken.

When you sign up for Wikipedia, they
ask you to edit a few things unrelated to your interests. My test was to
correct grammatical mistakes for a relatively skimpy page about the Congo.
Next, I was asked to proofread a vague historical event in the Marshall Islands.
I guess I passed because then I was given the green light to edit whatever I
wanted.

At the time I did not know that one of these rule was “you can’t edit family or friends.” Almost every fiction writer I knew on Wikipedia had been added by their spouse or partner. Of course, I immediately started editing my dad’s page. Minutes later, I was blocked by a bot. Then someone named bonadea blocked me. Bloodofox instantly reverted all my edits back to what they had set before. I reverted them back again. Suddenly, I was accused of vandalism. Bonadea accused me of being in an edit war, which to a writer who spends most of his days in a bathrobe, felt glorious.

I went back to Bloodofox’s page and discovered that he had won a Wikipedia contributors award. There was a small section where people had commended Bloodofox’s work. They even had a link to cyber-bullying against women and a brief passage about how Wikipedians protect each other. I figured if Bloodofox could write about my dad, I would at least be able to post something on Bloodofox’s “comments” section. I wrote that Bloodofox had written a disproportionately negative piece about Carl Raschke and this made me “sad.” Little did I know, I was kicking a hornet’s nest.

*

Whenever I hear someone say that they
are an Ayn Rand fan, my first thought is that they are not a big reader. Ayn
Rand always reminded me of my old Denver neighbor Phil, a frumpy white programmer and insufferable libertarian who
sprinkled Ross Perot signs on everyone’s lawn and talked about The Fountainhead as if it were the Bible. It was only after a
motorcycle accident and subsequent conversion to Unitarianism that Phil’s
incessant diatribes actualized into reasonable conversations about the cost of
light-rail or John Elway’s injuries.

Tech billionaires love talking about
free information if they think it can make them money. There are many
mind-numbingly peppy TED Talks where you can hear Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy
Wales explain how to get rich off of free information. The only time I heard
dissent during these talks was when someone asked him how Wikipedia can accept
donations while adhering to the ideology of Ayn Rand. Jimmy Wales claimed that
objectivism and charity were not mutually exclusive, which is a little like
saying there’s a place for LGBTQ in ISIS.

It is inherently troubling that Ayn
Rand’s philosophy shrouds many people’s go-to place for information. Ayn Rand
is often espoused by Republicans although it is amusing to imagine the
notoriously blunt author in a room with Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. If truth
favored the Republicans then May 1st would celebrate George W. Bush’s Mission
Accomplished and the liberation of Iraq. If history is any indication, when
ideologies influence information, history is often rewritten.

The next morning, after attempting to
change my father’s page, I looked at my phone and found a flood of warnings. My
attempt to join the open discussion at Wikipedia had led to a torrent of
threats of excommunication. As I brushed my teeth and then my kids’ teeth, I
wondered, is this what Ayn Rand’s utopia is going to look like, a land of angry
white programmers publicly smearing academics?

My most aggressive Wikipedia enforcer was a skinny kid from UCLA who either admired Stromboli or Metallica, because he went by the name of Master of Puppets. I asked Master of Puppets politely who I could go to for mediation. Master of Puppets told me nothing was wrong with the entry, that Bloodofox had written straight from fact, and that was good enough.

“Yes, but…”

“You must also stop asking questions,”
he warned. “Or you will be blocked.”

“Why?”

“You must stop asking ‘why?’ or you
will be blocked.”

I had been in the Peace Corps in Armenia so I understood Soviet Bureaucracy, the cold efficiency of veiled threats concealing ignorance over the genesis of certain protocol. But what was fascinating was that so many of these Wikipedians whose pages I visited, such as with Master of Puppets, professed anti-establishment attitudes, yet were simultaneously creating an Orwellian system to stop anyone who questioned them.

The Wikipedia Talk page accusing me of “disrupting”.

Over the next few days, my dad’s colleagues, other tenured professors, and notable academics joined the “war.” They spent hours debating Bloodofox’s entry, reasonably explaining my father’s academic legacy, and because of their efforts, they too were all blocked. They were accused of being “sock-puppets,” or someone who is closely associated with the subject. When their suspension was lifted, they returned to the debate only to be blocked again. In fact, every single person who worked on Carl Raschke’s Wikipedia entry, with the exception of Bloodofox, was at first blocked, then permanently kicked off.

Victor Taylor, an English professor from York University, was beside himself when he was permanently blocked after making a few edits on my father’s Wikipedia page. He wrote a letter demanding to be unblocked, but was coolly rebuffed by KrakatoaKatie (named I would guess after a fiery East Indies volcano). Discouraged, Taylor wrote my father an exasperated email saying that he felt Wikipedia operated “like a cult, with only external layers and no discernible core.” It was much like the cults my father had written about in Painted Black.

Since these academics knew as little as my father and I did about how Wikipedia works, they wrote brilliant emails arguing their case. Eventually, Wikipedia did something called a UserCheck lead by J. Gordon, the first editor with a seemingly regular name. The UserCheck confirmed that everyone who had been writing on my father’s page was linked to Carl and could not contribute to my father’s page. I am sure the prohibition of peer-review aged a few of my father’s Ivy-League colleagues considerably. In the end, there was however one contributor who was not a sock-puppet and could legitimately edit my father’s page. According to J. Gordon, this editor was, Duikelmaan, which was, actually me, his son.

*

Anarchists, anti-establishmentarians,
and often programmers are zealots with facts, their self-righteousness buoyed
by truths derived from big data. Wikipedia, and similarly free information
portals, often march to a new kind of fascism, where even though millions of
followers are separated by culture, race, and geography, they see themselves as
gatekeepers to an empirically-purified future. The elite old guard, professors
and academics, colleagues and department chairs, men and women with
“intentions” are replaced by what they believe is the truth produced in vast
cerebral, collective knowledge of internet users.

I have lived in the Netherlands now for almost a decade and my biggest complaint is that the Dutch’s adherence to egalitarianism reduces democracy to a Yelp review, where everyone and anyone can topple great institutions based solely on personal experience. In this case, Bloodofox, a professed pagan, read Painted Black many years ago, was incensed how my father portrayed certain pagan groups as cults, including the Wiccans, and later, found in Wikipedia a perfect way to exact revenge. Wikipedians are decentralizing authority just as quickly as they recentralizing it in the hands of those practiced in Wikipedia protocol. The “intentions” are still there, but gone is the academic debate.

Larry Sanders, co-founder of
Wikipedia, recently said in a Vice interview[1], that one of his biggest regrets was
not putting in place an expert-reviewed system, much like Twitter has verified
checks. “I do think it has a root problem that’s social,” Sanders said. “People
that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the
asylum.”

*

In a Salon piece entitled, “Revenge, Ego, and the Corruption of Wikipedia,” Qworty, a senior editor at Wikipedia, systematically writes hundreds of negative things about Barry Hannah and several published fiction authors. The reason was much like Bloodofox’s. Qworty had had his fiction spurned at many of the conferences Hannah attended and found Wikipedia a perfect place to exact his revenge.

There is also Philip Roth’s open
letter to Wikipedia, published in The New Yorker, where
he goes to great length to refute an entry about his novel The
Human Stain. Roth pointed out several inaccuracies on his Wikipedia
page, claiming to be the highest authority on himself. The response from
Wikipedia was exactly as you might imagine. “I understand your
point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,”
writes the Wikipedia Administrator to Philip Roth, “but we
require secondary sources.”

Over the next week, my father and I became bad amateur detectives. We traced a photo of a spiritual Norse tree on Bloodofox’s page to a lumpy Wiccan and rabid Bernie Sanders supporter on the northern East Coast. We also discovered that Bloodofox’s wife was a Wiccan, a proud heathen family, pagans, worshipped goddesses, the earth, old trees. If this was Bloodofox, and I’m not sure it was, then he was a soft, white middle-class, intellectual cum middle-manager, who, according to his numerous blog posts, enjoyed farmer’s markets and was ready to send Wall Streeters to the guillotine in exchange for a lower cable-bill.

Ironically, Bloodofox, according to his Linked-In page, was an IT manager for a retirement fund, the same retirement fund that the University of Denver used. My dad called the retirement fund and they agreed that this particular employee had been spending an inordinate amount of time on Wikipedia, but all they could do was ask him not to do it at work. And once again, we had zero evidence that this was the same Bloodofox that had written my father’s Wikipedia page.

Going through Bloodofox’s Facebook page, I realized we both liked exotic whiskeys. Enjoyed many of the same books. Like the same movies. In real life we might be friends, but in the world of Wikipedia, we were fighting in a world of friction and fiction, where entire careers could be rewritten by someone with a grudge.

In the end, my father never had his page changed. He said that in academic circles, his career and accolades were known, and that was enough for him. But still, any time a student or reader of his work, reads his Wikipedia page, they will learn about my father not from his accomplishments, but from Bloodofox’s grudge. This, in itself, should be a red flag for not only how the internet supplies us with information now, but how we will be remembered by the generations to come. 


[1] Wikipedia’s Co-Founder is Wikipedia’s Most Outspoken Critic, Zack Shwartz, Vice, November 11, 2015.